Straight of Nemuro by Deborah Guzzi

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Straight of Nemuro by Deborah Guzzi
Illustration by Sue Babcock

All dead, all dead, Toitoi chews her lip. She ties the sash about her hand-me-down robe tighter and shoulders a log canoe into a calm sea. Salt water soaks her breeches, chafing the knobs of her knees. Bone-sore from hours of prayer at water’s edge, she finds the weight of the Ainu dugout almost too much. The bottom scrapes across shards of obsidian sand, then lifts with a slight wave. A gourd full of fresh water tumbles across the boat’s bottom. She leaps inside, shifting the provision sack full of berries, dried meat and bread onto her back. Arms freed, she rows. Soot from Father’s burial fire surrounds her golden eyes. Her lips upturn. Wrong to smile, wrong to smile now; but she cannot help it. She knows; she looks like an owl. Knuckling the tears, she smudges the grit further. She argues with herself. It doesn’t look so far, Hokkaidō; she speaks aloud. I can do this. Puffing out her chest, she rows standing. Father taught me well. The Strait of Nemuro, flat this dawn, accepts her. Her teeth chatter.  Soon, soon, I will be warm from the summer sun.

Toitoi glances backward at the isle of Kunashiri—home. They’re all dead,  rings in her skull. Sickness came with the Northland trading party and spared only her. One at a time, pox took the camp of eight. She watched her uncles die within days of each other. Her cousin, the last male, died with the new moon. Days after his death, his mother (fever-blind), walked into the sea. Toitoi cannot stop crying, though no emotion shows on her face.  Mother, Father, the baby, and I were the only clan left. Mother called for the fire spirit to cleanse us, but the curse remains.

Toitoi stops rowing and rubs her aching arms; she feels Auntie’s ghost in the breeze, tussling her hair. It is past noon; the sun has burnt her arms. She falls to her knees. Shallow strokes, father said, not too deep. Unshed tears blur her vision. Memories flood her: the flames—Mother burning the house with the baby’s body—Mother’s wail as she sends the baby’s soul to grandmother goddess with hearth fire. Toitoi reaches for berries within the sack made from Mother’s scarf. Toitoi fingers the homemade cloth. For a time, Mother lives. Then, the most ancient mother, Okikurumi Turesh Machi, takes Mother to the gods as well.


For the cycle of two moons, she lived with Father. Mirages of memory crowd. She looks at the knife with its carved handle in her sash. Father made it for a son, he would never have— She clucks, I sound just like Mother. Mother would not have been happy about her learning to carve, fish, and hunt. But, she had to help Father. Before Father became sick, he told stories at night around the fire of moshiri ikkew chep—the backbone fish of the world—a trout upon whose back the land and the sea ride. No time for embroidery, he said. There was food to find. Embarrassed, she grins at the image of herself as a fisherman, but no one can see her. Fog unrolls like the prayer curls of willow wood which made the Inau cross at the prow. And then, the pox took him; he no longer cared about food.

Toitoi’s stomach grumbles. Another spirit moves through air; Toitoi shrieks. She wonders, is it Father’s spirit? She cannot forget the smell of his body burning.


waves lap:

the shed rod moves through

mother’s loom


What will become of me, she sighs. I’m not marriageable. I have no tattoos—no anchi-piri. The ceremony was not done; illness came. I look like a boy. The wind god raises hairs on her arms. She stands to row again. The island peeks through lichen-gray fog. By sight, she adjusts course. If the fog gets thicker I will lose my wayDare I try the small sail? She doesn’t want to roll the boat. She is so tired. If I don’t reach the island before dark, I will die. Who will tell her clans tale? She begins to raise the square sail—breeze becomes wind. Waves rise.  The boat lurches forward—throwing her back. The water gourd topples overboard. Reaching for the sting, she almost falls in. She drops and crawls the boat’s bottom to the flapping sail. She claws at it, bringing it down in time. She hugs it to her chest. No, no, I cannot use the sail. Not strong enough to right the boat. Will I lose my soul if I die without a name? Toitoi’s a baby’s name. Grabbing a bailing shell, she growls. No water now. The shore seems closer. She is too tired to really tell. Through unmarked lips, she mutters to the Bear God—the clans special God. Will I ever get to see you, Bear? I will. I will be named for courage. Maybe I will be named for you, Bear, or for this voyage, yes. Hmmm, maybe Wavecrestor.


the sea swells:

below in darkness

the trout stirs


The sun lowers into the ocean just as Toitoi spots the reef leading to shore. The mountainous slope of the island appears in mist. Smoke rises in the distant trees. Around a bend, she sees fishermen from another Ainu clan. Too dry to yell, she waves the sack made from Mother’s shawl. Its bright colors attract them. Yes, yes, they’re rowing toward me. I will reach the island! The goddess of fire, Fuchi, is watching over me. Firefinder, Toitoi thinks, is a great name. Fuchi is a strong goddess. Will she forgive me for wanting to be a boy, for a little while? Toitoi cinches the sash tighter about her cousin’s robe and adjusts the knife. A whimper comes from her, fire, fire is for cleansingAll has been burnt. As the others approach and her new life is to begin, a frown crosses her face, except my clothes and Mother’s shawl?


BIO: Deborah Guzzi writes full time. She is a candidate for the 2015 Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award. Her book, The Hurricane, published by Prolific Press is now available. She travels the world seeking writing inspiration. She has walked the Great Wall of China, seen Nepal (during the civil war), Japan, Egypt (two weeks before ‘The Arab Spring’), Peru, and France during December’s terrorist attacks. Her poetry appears in: Existere – Journal of Arts and Literature in Canada, Tincture in Australia, Cha: Asian Literary Review, China, Vine Leaves Literary Journal in Greece, and Eye to the Telescope, Bete Noir, Liquid Imagination, Illumen, Literary Hatchet, and Silver Blade among others in the USA.